Positivity, Terrorism, & Neorecovery

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The imperative to be positive, to have what is lauded in the workplace under neoliberal capitalism as a ‘Positive Mental Attitude (PMA)’, has seeped into every area of human life, and it is terroristic. The obligation to wrap up one’s distress in a gift box with a pretty ribbon, to mask the absolute horror show that can be bestowed upon some of us in the form of mental torment, is nothing less than a violence. As we have learned from those who are subject to racism and intersecting oppressions, it is what these things do to the psyche, the way they get under the skin, into the marrow, and woven into the very fabric of our selves, that does the most damage. It is a colonization of the mind.

The positive police have set up shop in every mental health service. We should write gratitude lists, mindfully eat raisins, HOPE (help other people every day), list our strengths on care plans, and think about where we might want to be in five-year’s-time when the next hour feels unsurvivable. My current care plan asks me to document my long term goals and how I will achieve them; the boxes to fill in read like an appraisal form, or something to put in a personal statement in which I try to convince someone I deserve a particular position. The form used to be about the difficulties we experience, what help we need – not an instruction to account for oneself and how we might materialise the things we want out of thin air, driven by pure (and probably literal) hunger for it.

I run a writing group for people who experience ‘psychosis’. Last week one of the members was trying to write something based on a prompt I gave them and said, apologetically, that she had nothing positive to write. I was a bit startled because I have never asked them to write in a particular way, and certainly not to write with their positive pants on. I said that the group wasn’t a space that demanded positivity, but was a space in which to be real with yourself and others, to the degree with which you are comfortable. Her reply? “That makes me want to cry”. Her response made me want to cry. And shout. What are we doing to people that we feel that unless we can speak positively we shouldn’t speak at all, particularly about the reality we experience? This violence rips words from throats; puts a sterile spin on the diverse range of human experiences; whittles us away to silt; isolates; individualises; and expects us to swallow patronising platitudes in the name of ‘recovery’ so that we may be deemed worthwhile (read: productive) subjects.

I don’t want to go all John Lennon on you, but imagine if we let people be. Imagine if we accepted that it isn’t wallowing and being resistant to treatment to be honest about how we feel? Imagine if we were willing to hold that space for people with care, and to sit alongside them in it. Imagine if we decolonised the narrative, stopped asking people to superficially cover wounds that need suturing and healing from the bottom up. Contrary to neoliberal propaganda, of which the recovery discourse is fast becoming a sacred part, this doesn’t cause people to be stuck in a sick role and too dependent (whatever that means given we are all dependent on others), but allows for the possibility of being seen, being accompanied, and possibly moving through it with help.

Interestingly, the group member I mentioned above, though speaking of her fears and upset of the previous two weeks, wrote a very positive poem. I am not convinced this is because she miraculously felt that way, but because the obligation to be positive has hijacked her from the inside. Violence isn’t always bloody.

– Eleanor Higgins

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